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Review: iPhone 14 Pro


It feels sort of like I’ve come full circle. Here I am starting this review, writing about a phone in the context of photography performance now that I’ve gone fully into the world of photography, amassing quite the assortment of gear. Some might say I moved on to a “real” camera but I prefer to simply say “big” camera. While it is true that even the best phones currently on the market in terms of photography performance won’t hold a candle to proper professional gear in most shoot scenarios for the purposes of larger prints, commercial requirements, etc, mobile cameras have certainly made large strides.

Over a decade ago I was in this exact same spot more or less, writing about phones, but through a very different lens (consumer tech blogger / reviewer). And while those times have changed and what I focus on these days is much more narrowly focused, it feels like I never left this world. The more things change the more they seem to stay the same in a way. And while my preference for what I take pictures with has certainly changed, both the consumer tech nerd and photography junkie in me can’t help but feel nothing but childhood excitement for something like the new iPhone. While in many contexts, this years iPhone is a minor bump from last years iPhone, there is one key area in particular that the photographers of the world may be super eager to check out. For the first time in ~7 years, Apple has finally updated the camera hardware in a pretty massive way, by swapping out the main sensor from a 12-megapixel unit to a 48-megapixel / “quad pixel” variant. But main sensor aside, the other two lenses, while not nearly has hyped up, did indeed receive some much needed attention.

What does it all mean and is it really any better than last year’s phone? Step with me as we take a grand photographic journey.

General Impressions

I will start off by highlighting the fantastic “Space Black” color option that I opted for. My most favorite anodized iPhone color to date had been the iPhone 5s and the “Vader Black” offering at the time. Since then, nothing has been as dark, with Apple often going for some shade of grey. There was also that one-off glossy “Jet Black” iPhone 7 option that one lasted a single year (and also attracted fingerprints like none other). For 2022, the iPhone 14 Pro goes really dark once again and I’m totally ready for it. That said, the shade of purple Apple chose this time around as the special color option outside of the normal white/black/gold isn’t too bad either.

Colors aside, the most all of the hardware itself is visually and physically very similar to the iPhone 13 Pro before it. Dimensions wise, while the measurements are slightly different in a couple of directions, it’s overall so small that you wouldn’t notice the difference between the 13 Pro and 14 Pro models. I personally am really enjoying the single-handed freedom of the 14 Pro after having the “Max” sized iPhone for the last couple of years. I don’t have the largest hands so over time I grew to kind of dislike using a phone that large even if the screen was a joy to use.

Under the hood, the A16 powering the iPhone 14 Pro series is really not all that major of an improvement from the already fast A15 in last year’s Pro iPhones. Single and multi-core performance is roughly ~15% faster overall. And while the battery is noticeably bigger in this years’ Pro devices, it has to be to help offset the display and the always-on functionality Apple now supports. While it may seem like the always-on feature will wreak havoc on your battery, the reality is that the bigger battery plus display advancements that allow it to drop down to a single Hz refresh rate as well as other OS optimizations make it a pretty seamless affair.

Other notable features include faster charging (up to 30W) as well as satellite support for emergencies (**this costs extra after 2 years) which is pretty crazy to see standardized in a commercial device such as the iPhone. Though it is worth pointing out that satellite support won’t be available in beta until iOS 16.1 (at least) releases publicly.

Specs (Photo)

Before we get into photo samples and more opinionated banter, let’s start with some hard figures. Take note that like the iPhone 13 Pro, the iPhone 14 Pro has a 3-camera design on the rear and a singular camera on the front.

Rear

  • 48MP Main: 24 mm, f/1.78 aperture, second-generation sensor-shift optical image stabilization, seven‑element lens, 100% Focus Pixels
  • 12MP Ultra Wide: 13 mm, f/2.2 aperture and 120° field of view, six‑element lens, 100% Focus Pixels
  • 12MP 2x Telephoto (enabled by quad-pixel sensor): 48 mm, f/1.78 aperture, second-generation sensor-shift optical image stabilization, seven‑element lens, 100% Focus Pixels
  • 12MP 3x Telephoto: 77 mm, f/2.8 aperture, optical image stabilization, six-element lens

Front

  • Resolution: 12MP Sensor
  • Aperture: f/1.9
  • Focal Length: 23mm
  • Physical size: 40mm²

It’s worth noting that one key thing that stands out in the normal camera app this year is a new “2x” option. Eagle eyes will notice that the actual camera breakdown is still ultra wide / wide / tele, the latter of which is still a 3x lens. So where is 2x coming in? With the 48-megapixle quad pixel sensor, Apple is effectively doing a crop to achieve the 2x figure. Note however, it is not a 24MP image. Instead, Apple is taking the 48-megapixel resolution, binning it, then downsampling to the same 12MP images that the non-full res images are using. Put another way, the 48-megapixel sensor will only be fully realized if you so choose. In a similar fashion with the 1x lens,normal photos will be down sampled from 48 down to 12-megapixels.

Now you might be asking yourself why Apple is wasting this new hardware with meager defaults. It is quite simple really: simplicity and storage, though there is some nuance to be had in regards to how they are downsampling to increase performance (such as light gathering). You see, as you increase megapixel count for a given size of sensor, noise will increase. In addition to noise, the amount of light each pixel gathers is reduced as well.

With the above in mind, when you and apply camera physics it to a tiny phone sensor (relative to a full-frame camera body sensor) it certainly makes for some challenging obstacles. By allowing pixel binning, Apple can get more detail and better pictures but also still pull in more light necessary to keep ISO and noise down. And, as a bonus (previously noted), the downsampled images are smaller. While large photo sizes are not all that shocking in the big gear world, it’s still a tad abnormal to have to deal with 50+ MB images, especially considering the lower storage thresholds of some phones combined with all the other stuff they have to store within their internal storage. If you are the type to “so choose”, shooting in RAW using the stock camera app (or better) a third party camera app (like Hallide) will allow for full usage of the iPhone 14 Pro’s new sensor + some of the software chops (like Pro Raw) to help get the best of both worlds. And it is in this world where the iPhone 14 Pro can really shine.

 

Photo Performance

Before we hop into the photos, let’s dive a bit deeper on hardware, sensors, and what it all means.

The sensor sizes on the iPhone 13 Pro Max and iPhone 14 Pro for their main (best) camera sensor are 1/1.7″ / 1.9µm pixels and 1/1.28″ 1.22µm pixels respectively, whereas the Sony A7iii and A7riv I’m using alongside these phones for comparison purposes are rocking 24mp and 61mp sensors clocking in at 35.7mm x 23.8mm — a massive difference physically speaking. If you’re a visual person, this chart from newatlas.com pretty quickly visualizes that while smartphone cameras have come a long way, there is still a ways to go.

Put another way, dedicated cameras still have a healthy life left.

Now with that out of the way – real world photo performance….this is what we’re all really here for. While this was the defacto feature I cared about as my photographic journey started ramping up a handful of years ago, I still find myself gravitating largely to this feature despite having more more capable gear these days. As the saying goes, “the best camera is the one you have with you” remains true. While I do take my camera gear or some part of it with me quite often, there are still times I’m caught without it and wish I had it. With the iPhone camera chops continually improving, feeling like I’m missing out becomes less and less a thing as the phones become more capable. And while an iPhone even as good as the 14 Pro won’t replace a dedicated full-frame camera like the Sony A7iii or A7rIV in the right hands, in the equally right hands you can do some truly impressive stuff with it.

In the below examples you’re going to see a number of scene scenarios ranging from low-light to bright and busy. But to start at a higher level:

Day time

Day time is where you can get some of the most versatility with the 14’s new camera array. The options for photo formats include:

  • 12MP JPG: The default capture format is the binned 48MP image that combined the additional pixels for increased light gathering and outputs a final image of 12 MP. Image sizes are ~8-11MB per photo.
  • 48MP RAW: If you use a third party camera app (I use Halide) you can choose to capture a plain, RAW image without any Apple software processing applied. The purest image though more often than you’d think, not the image you may want. Image sizes are generally 45-65 MB per photo.
  • 48MP ProRAW: This is generally the best choice that balances raw output w/ the sensor capturing a full 48MP image + having some Apple processing thrown in.

I maintain the ProRAW 48MP shot is the best because especially if you’re doing anything with shadows or lower light images, the Apple processing is almost required to keep noise in check from the smaller, high MP sensor.

Low Light

The low light abilities of the iPhone 14 Pro are better than ever. And similar to the above, you’re going to have a couple of choices when shooting after hours.

  • 12MP binned JPG
  • 48MP ProRAW DNG

This choice is very much going to be an in-the-moment 50/50 choice. For absolute optimal light gathering, the 12MG binned JPG is going to be your best shot. But, if you have some other software to take care of noise after the fact and clean up the full res output, the 48 ProRAW image may be what you’re after. Below you’ll see a number of shots showing the differences between binned 12MP and full-res 48MP images look like once the evening takes over.

Video

I’m honestly not much of a video person. For my very normal usage, it’s totally fine. And the stabilization continues to get better with each year along side resolution an d frame rate capture speeds increasingly as well. There should be ample video reviews available that this point that go into as much or as little depth as you want. A quick search on YouTube should net a bunch of video specific reviews. Some of my favorites so far include:

 

Photo Samples

Note: All photos used (full-resolution raws, jpgs, etc. in their original state as well as fully edited) are available to download and peruse here.

Image 1

In this first shot we have a late sunset view, with Halide set to “RAW” only meaning no Apple processing and no additional images being created. This is meant to give a purer look at the sensor capabilities / what the….RAW images are looking like and what Apple may be doing on top of this. Understandably, the slight aperture difference and slightly larger ISO difference between the two is something I missed, with the 14 Pro having ~40% high ISO setting. That said, with the pixel binning you’d think it would help lower overall noise a touch. In the end it doesn’t look like that happened at all. Settings for these two pictures (iPhone 13 Pro Max | iPhone 14 Pro)

  • Focal range: 26mm | 24mm
  • ISO: 640 | 1000
  • Aperture: f1/5 | f/1.8
  • Shutter Speed: 1/12 sec | 1/12

Whoopsie’s aside, looking through all the noise the biggest thing I notice is that the iPhone 14 Pro image definitely has more dynamic range and highlight control especially near the middle back part of the image.

 

Just for comparison’s sake, there is the same image as above taken on a Sony A7iii (Left) and A7riv (Right) using a Tampon f/2-2.8 35-150mm lens. The settings for both of these images

  • Focal range: 35mm
  • ISO: 640
  • f/2.0
  • 1/40 sec
  • Minor edits to brighten them up since I underexpose (EV +1.5, Shadows + 25 NO lens adjustments)

 

As you can imagine, the noise is significantly lower simply because we’re dealing with sensors that are considerably larger. Larger sensors == more light and less noise at a given point (all settings being equal). Also keep in mind I only had two tripods. So during sunset it takes a second to swap between phones and camera bodies.

Image 2

a) Unedited

In this scenario I wanted to purposely underexpose the image severely to see just how much we could bring back. The benefits of using RAW after all allow for minor (to moderate) mistakes at time of capture to be corrected in post. In addition, while the ISO is slightly different again (13 Pro Max @ 64 vs 14 Pro @ 160), the 13 Pro Max’s slightly brighter f/1.5 aperture should help close the gap a bit compared to the 14 Pro’s f/1.75 aperture. Both images are 1/12 of a sec.

Despite the slight advantage to the 14 Pro because of the ISO being a tad higher, it’s not linear in terms of how much brighter it is. The 14 Pro’s full 48mp sensor using all of that light gathering + software chops and binning down to 12mp really is shown off here.

B) Edited

Zooming in to both of these images edited (+60 | +100 shadows, respectively) shows that both definitely have noise and artifacts, but the iPhone 14 Pro has less of it. Again, this is an extreme scenario and neither of these edits are usable and you typically would not underexpose this much with the intent to blast the shadows to the moon.

Reminder: All images used here can be found in full-res here.

Photo Samples (cont.)

Comparisons to the iPhone 13 Pro Max and previous hardware aside, I’ve also spent some time running about with camera + phone in hand. So far I’d say I’m pretty happy with the results. The 48 megapixels offered by the sensor is exactly what anyone remotely interested in photography wants and needs with the cropping and/or editing headroom it offers you. Though if I had to find something to gripe about it would be two things

  • The focal length
  • Over sharpening on the ultra wide specifically

Focal length: At a 24mm equivalent, it’s wider than I ever shoot with generally. 35 and wider is relegated to (rare) super wide landscapes or astrophotography. I tend to spend most of my time in the 70-130 range with the secondary home being 150+. Now of course phones aren’t getting crazy long focal lengths for at least a little while longer (en masse) but I would have at least preferred if they made the main 48mp sensor a ~50mm equivalent.

Ultra wide: I will note that the ultrawide has indeed received a healthy amount of tweaking on the iPhone 14 Pro. Sebastian (creator of Hallide) has a great, deeper dive on the ultra wide here. Despite this improvement however, it’s still the weakest lens out of three. Compared to the 1x and 3x, it’s just not as sharp and is more prone to software heavy handedness. This materializes in odd ways at times. For example, to compensate for lack of sharpness, more often than not the iPhone 14 Pro will get aggressive with sharpening. This tendency is even greater on macro shots. That said, you can counteract it a bit with some slight reductions to sharpness/clarity/texture in Lightroom of some equivalent photo editing app.

Macro mode: Seeing as how the “macro mode” on the iPhone 14 Pro continues in the 13 Pro’s footsteps by utilizing the ultrawide, some of the sharpening woes above continue. Even more-so with macro images I found myself really needing to dial back sharpening most of the time. Nonetheless, it is overall a pretty large improvement from the iPhone 13 Pro ultrawide day to day.

See the link below for the full assortment of review photos: comparison shots, original RAWS + settings, and final exported jpgs with edits.

Overall, all three cameras have been moderately to greatly improved from the 13 Pro and my criticisms above are getting quite in-the-weeds at times. And I have to reiterate, most general consumers won’t even notice the improvements (much less the pitfalls above). And those of you who know your way around a camera will find the added versatility quite enjoyable.

Conclusion

Do you need the iPhone 14 Pro? That’s a fairly complex logic tree that simply depends. I will say that while the most common response of “No” is being tossed around from most people if the question is “Should I upgrade from the 13 Pro to the 14 Pro”, I still feel like for photographers especially, it is actually a much easier “yes”. By far the biggest single feature upgraded from the 13 Pro to the 14 Pro is the camera itself. And with this big bump in hardware is quite some runway in SW. If you care about photos and still employ your trusty iPhone in the photo capturing process at all, there is absolutely still a reason to upgrade from the 13 Pro. If instead you don’t take many low light photos or don’t care to edit images in general, then the benefits of the camera are much less tangible.

In the end, the 14 Pro is one of the best phone cameras you can buy currently available and it will remain that way for some time…. or at least until the 15 comes out next year. And with it, you get all of the software creature comforts / AI magic to help blend the best of both worlds.

If you’d like to follow along as I continue to explore the possibilities of the iPhone 14 Pro, follow me over on Instagram and Twitter, more-so the latter, where I’ll be posing more often with mobile captured photos.

Contact & Prints

If you’d like to follow me along through my never-ending photography journey, check out my accounts below:

Prints can be found at Smugmug

Tags: apple, iOS, iOS 16, iphone, iphone 14 pro, iPhone photography, iphoneography, mobilephotography, proraw, prores, sonya73, sonya7iii, sonya7r4, sonya7riv, space black

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